Accessibility links


education for enlightenment

To create enlightened students, we need an education designed for more than exams & earnings.

For most people, the word ‘enlightenment’ probably sounds a bit rarefied, elitist even; something which might consume the thoughts of a philosopher in an ivory tower, but which has precious little to do with the rest of us down in the square. Which is more than a little paradoxical, considering the central idea of the 18th century enlightenment was that the people in the square need no longer defer to elites or submit to their claims to authority; that all of us, armed with evidence and guided by reason, can build a better world without recourse to superstition, revelation or dogma.

This enduring humanistic belief – that “we the people” are capable of discovering what is true, deciding what is right, and shaping society accordingly – amounts to a declaration of intellectual, moral and political sovereignty. But claiming that sovereignty, and exercising it, are quite different things. If we are to create a 21st century enlightenment, we need to educate our children for that task.

That means inducting them into the great conversation of mankind – the unending dialogue between the living, the dead and the yet-to-be-born. It means introducing them to the best that has been thought, said and done, and equipping them to appreciate it, interrogate it, apply it and build on it. It means providing them with a more complete and generous education – an education in academics, aesthetics and ethics, or, as we refer to it at the RSA, an education of the ‘head, hand and heart’.

Yet too many children and young people today receive the opposite – a narrow, hollowed-out, instrumentalist education that is specifically designed and tightly calibrated for the task of getting them through exams, but which doesn’t prepare them fully for life.

Julian Astle  

Director, RSA Creative Learning and Development


Laura Partridge

Senior Researcher, RSA Creative Learning and Development

Education by numbers

To understand why this is, we need to understand the nature of the system in which our children study and teachers work. Above all, we need to understand the impact of the current numbers-based performance management and school accountability system – the tail that wags the dog in English education.

As Jerry Muller, author of The Tyranny of Metrics, has argued, numerical targets distort organisations’ priorities in a variety of ways. There are no fewer than 10 categories of problem that stem directly from the use of metrics to measure school and teacher performance. Each of these should cause ministers serious concern. In combination, they should lead them to commit to the system’s urgent and wholesale reform.

The first is what we might call goal displacement – the temptation for professionals to focus on those outcomes that are being measured, while ignoring others that also matter, and often matter more. In education, the metrics that policy makers care most about are exam grades, and not without reason. But a good exam grade doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know about a student, still less the school she attends. Like whether she will be able to put her knowledge to use in the real world. Or whether she enjoyed acquiring that knowledge and will leave school determined to keep on learning as she will need to do during her 50+ years in the 21st century’s increasingly fluid labour markets. Most importantly, an exam grade doesn’t tell us whether she is happy, kind, selfless or brave – whether she will go out into society and use what she has learnt to help others, to stand up to injustice and make a positive difference.

The second is the tendency to engage in activities that produce temporary, superficial or entirely illusory gains, but which nonetheless allow schools to tick a box on a performance data spreadsheet. The most widespread and damaging example of this is teaching-to-the-test, a practice that allows schools to achieve the proxy goal of preparing pupils for exams, while failing to achieve education’s true goal – preparing pupils for the challenges of further study, work and life.

The third problem is gaming, a serviceable definition of which is any decision that puts the institutional interests of the school before the educational interests of the child. Cheating in exams, manipulating admissions and exclusions, herding students towards easy-to-pass qualifications of little value or interest, devoting resources to statistically important subjects and pupils while deprioritising others – all are examples of gaming. Or, to be more precise, all of them are rational responses to the system’s many perverse incentives – incentives that, if ignored, can cost a headteacher her job, livelihood and professional reputation.

The fourth is the creation of powerful system-wide dynamics that work to the disadvantage of the poorest communities and most vulnerable pupils. In a system where the effectiveness of schools and teachers is measured by reference to pupils’ test scores, working in a school where pupil achievement is likely to be lower carries significant risks. Which is one of the reasons why schools in the most deprived communities struggle to recruit and retain the best teachers, and why England’s unusually high levels of educational inequality are proving so hard to reduce.

The fifth is short-termism. This is most apparent in the tendency to focus attention and resources on those year groups that are sitting high-stakes tests while underinvesting in younger pupils. This leads to an over-reliance on quick-fix, data-driven, deficit-focused interventions and the neglect of long-term fundamentals, curriculum design above all.

10 problems caused by 'Education by Numbers'

  1. Goal displacement: what's being measured, not what's important.
  2. Teaching to the test
  3. Gaming: putting the school's interest before the child's
  4. Schools in the most deprived areas struggle to retain teachers
  5. Encouraging short-term approach
  6. Pupil disengagement
  7. Stifling experimentation & innovation
  8. Increase in teacher workload
  9. Demoralising teachers
  10. Inability to attract & retain enough teachers

The sixth is pupil disengagement. Attending an exam factory school is grim. From the day a child arrives in Year 7 and is given his target grade, the tone is set. Key stage 3 will be cut short, non-examined subjects will be dropped, exam-taking techniques will be drummed in, texts that are studied in one key stage will be re-studied in the next. Five years later, that child will no doubt know how to answer a 4- or 8-point question, but will he know how to think for himself? Will he be capable of producing interesting and original work? And will the prospect of further learning be something he looks forward to, or something he will want to escape as soon as the law allows?

The seventh is the stifling effect metric-based accountability has on experimentation and innovation. Since these can lead to failure and the severe consequences that follow, school leaders become understandably risk averse, placing their trust in well established, yet obviously improvable methods. And to ensure those methods are used, school leaders become ever more prescriptive and controlling, reducing teacher autonomy, discouraging creativity and demanding compliance. 

The eighth is the increase in teacher workload. All those numbers need to be collected, reported, collated, analysed and tracked. All of which takes a lot of time – time that teachers could devote to teaching, to professional development or to some well-earned rest.

The ninth is the demoralisation of the workforce. It would be hard to think of a better way of sapping teachers’ morale than ordering them to meet crude, distorting and widely gamed numerical targets upon pain of sanction. Such an approach undermines their agency, corrodes their professional identity and damages their self-esteem.

All of which leads to the final problem – the only one of the ten that governments can’t ignore and the one that now confronts the British government: an inability to attract and retain enough teachers. 

Forcing people to focus their efforts on a narrow range of measurable outcomes diminishes the experience of work for everyone. But it is particularly intolerable for the most capable, principled, driven and entrepreneurial who will likely seek out alternative opportunities in organisations where the bureaucracy is less suffocating and initiative is prized. Little surprise then that half of all the non-retiring teachers who left the state-funded sector last year took up teaching jobs in the independent sector. Or that some of the best minds in English education have left teaching to become advisors and consultants.  

A chance for change

There are two reasons for thinking fundamental change might now be achievable.

The first is the teacher recruitment and retention crisis. It was Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who said “never let a crisis go to waste”. England’s teachers would be well advised to heed his words.  For this is a crisis the government cannot solve without listening to teachers and responding to their concerns.

The second is the work of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman. Spielman has been clear from the day she was appointed: she wants to use her time at the inspectorate to end this tyranny of numbers and get schools re-focused on the things that really matter. She wants to judge schools not simply by their results, but by the quality of their curricula and of the education they provide. But she’ll first have to convince a sceptical Department for Education that such a subjective power is safe in the hands of her inspectors.

Even if Spielman wins that battle, all the hard work will still be in front of us.

For what is required, if we are to move from education-by-numbers to education-for-enlightenment, is nothing short of a new settlement based on a fundamentally different relationship between government, schools and the communities they serve.



From 1856 the RSA held examinations for workers who had funded their own education, so that their efforts could be recognised and certified.

4 Principles for Enlightened Education

  • Inquisitive Students
  • Reflective Educators
  • Mission-oriented schools
  • Supportive communities

Education for enlightenment

If it is axiomatic to state that a 21st century enlightenment needs to be people-powered, it should be equally self-evident that the process of educating for enlightenment must be driven from the bottom up – by school governors and leaders, teachers, pupils, their parents and the wider community. You can’t run a top-down, compliance-based system that distrusts and disempowers those who work within it and expect that system to produce confident, capable, independent-minded young adults with the agency required to build a new enlightenment.

The existing settlement, of governmental command-and-control, backed by the threat of sanction, has taken the system as far as it can. As Joel Klein, who ran New York City’s school system, put it: “You can mandate adequacy, but greatness needs to be unleashed”. How to do that – how to remove the leash on which even the highest performing schools are kept so as to build the best public education system in the world – is the challenge we now need to meet.  

If the existing system is centred on number crunchers and data managers, the new system needs to be designed for and built around: 

  • Inquisitive students, with a love of learningwho cherish independent thought;
  • Reflective educators, with a love of their subject, who are fascinated by the science and art of teaching;
  • Mission-oriented schools with a clear sense of their own identity, values and goals;
  • Supportive communities that provide opportunities for people of all backgrounds, ages and abilities to learn, develop and contribute.

Wrong about Teenagers?

Two RSA-commissioned surveys show the gap between the perception & reality of teenagers.

  • The top words adults used to describe teenagers were selfish, lazy, and anti-social
  • But in a survey of 14-18 year olds 84% wanted to help others, and 68% have done so through volunteering and social action

Inquisitive students

If we are trying to produce inquisitive, independent-minded, life-long learners, we should educate them accordingly. The clear lesson from both cognitive science and educational research is that, at the start of the long journey from novice to expert, this requires plenty of clear, explicit instruction and deliberate practice so as not to overload the pupil’s limited working memory. But over time, teaching methods need to shift from the monologic to the dialogic, the didactic to the dialectic, with responsibility and control gradually shifting from teacher to student. The goal, however, remains the same throughout: to teach the student not what to think, but how to think.

This process can’t be rushed. Deep learning, real understanding, true appreciation – these things take time. A complete and generous education is one that gives the student the time and space to learn and overlearn, to practice and repeat, to delve deeper or digress, to challenge and question, to discuss and debate, and, throughout, to pause, consider, evaluate and reflect.

It is one that enculturates the student in the logic and language of the disciplines and introduces them to their differing perspectives on, and contributions to, the world. It is explicitly open ended, embracing dualism, doubt and irresolution. It deals in the subjective as well as the objective, encouraging students to develop their own opinions, but demanding that they be informed and evidenced.

It is one in which students learn from each other, as well as from adults, and that encourages them to share their learning, whether through an essay, a presentation, a portfolio or a performance. It is one that offers students the chance to follow their passions and lose themselves in their work – to achieve that state of presence, purpose and focus that is attainable only through hard work in pursuit of perfection. It is an education that is valued above all for its intrinsic benefits; for its power to enrich, confound, inspire and amaze.

Reflective teachers

Such an education cannot be provided by teachers whose job is to hit numerical output targets using a limited range of prescribed methods. Downloadable lesson plans and pre-prepared scripts are how the system mandates adequacy. They are not how it will unleash greatness.

Anyone who has engaged with the evidence of what works in education will know what a complex, layered and highly intellectual profession teaching is. Affecting an invisible change in the minds of the 30 unique individuals in front of you, knowing whether and when that change has occurred, and proceeding at a pace that doesn’t overwhelm the slowest and bore the fastest is an almost impossibly difficult task. To do it well requires the teacher to be an expert not only in their subject, but in how to teach it. This requires them to gather evidence from multiple sources – cognitive science, classroom trials, school-level progress and attainment data and real-time formative assessment data. To do it well, in other words, requires the judgement of a highly skilled professional.

Mission-led schools

It would be a mistake to conclude from this that the challenge of delivering a world class education is a technical one, however. For ultimately, education is values based and goal driven. Its essential character depends on the sort of adults you are trying to produce, and the sort of world you are trying to build.

Which is why the best schools are always mission-led. And because a mission is an expression of shared purpose, it needs to be owned by everyone in the school.

What that mission is will vary from school to school. What matters, assuming that mission is compatible with Britain’s core democratic values, is that they have one, and that they put it at the centre of everything they do.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of mission to excellent schooling. As an expression of shared values, it provides a school with an identity, and the school community with a sense of belonging. And as an expression of shared aims, it provides governors and leaders with a lodestar – a constant point on the horizon to aim at – that prevents them being blown off course by the shifting short-term demands of the external accountability system. But a mission isn’t just about values and vision. It also provides a school with a set of organising principals that should govern everything it does, infusing its curriculum and culture, its practices and protocols, its daily rituals and routines. Ask a teacher or pupil in a mission-led school what that school is all about and they will be able to tell you what makes it different, why that difference is a strength and why they feel privileged to work or study there.

Supportive communities

No school is an island, however. And even the best schools, populated by the most committed and expert teachers, cannot overcome the problems many children face without help. They need the support and engagement of the wider community.

Pupils poor enough to qualify for free school meals currently arrive at primary school an average of four months behind their peers and leave secondary school 18 months behind. Pupils with special educational needs and disabilities start school 15 months behind and leave school a full three years behind.

If schools are to close those gaps provide the most disadvantaged children with the support they need to prosper, they need help. They need it from parents, carers and families. They need it from other public agencies and services. And they need it from civil society – the youth workers, mentors, volunteers and charities that work to overcome the many and serious problems poverty creates. 

And if schools are to provide those children with the opportunities their more affluent peers take for granted, they need the help of businesses, professional bodies, arts and cultural organisations, colleges and universities, all of whom can give young people the sense of agency and creative possibility that come from realising how limitless are the ways to find meaning and create value in the world. 

A new attitude towards young people, and towards school

The final ingredient in an enlightenment education is perhaps the most fundamental. It is to challenge widely held views about both young people’s characters and schooling’s purpose.

In a recent RSA-commissioned poll, adults were asked to choose from a list of six adjectives – three positive, three negative – to describe teenagers. The most popular answers were ‘selfish’, ‘lazy’ and ‘anti-social’. Yet a parallel survey of 14 to 18-year olds found that 84 percent want to help others, and that 68 percent have done so through volunteering and social action. This gap between perception and reality is shocking and cannot help but damage young people’s sense of worth. If we give up on our children, we should not be surprised if they give up on themselves.

The other prevailing attitude that needs to be challenged is that school is a necessarily joyless experience but that it will be ‘worth it in the end’ – that sacrifice today will be rewarded tomorrow. The problem, of course, is that tomorrow never comes. Which is why we need to tell students that today matters – that they don’t have to wait to create, contribute and make a difference.

After all, as Martin Luther King reminded us:


“In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”


How do we achieve 21st Century Enlightenment?

Foundations for a 21st century enlightenment

By Anthony Painter

It is movements and ideas combined that secure lasting change.

Automation on our own terms

By Benedict Dellot and Brhmie Balaram

We need new rights, responsibilities and assets to help workers thrive amidst new technologies.

Britain's new Giants

By Ed Cox

We need new public service and democratic institutions geared towards tackling inequality, loneliness and intolerance. 




Join the discussion

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.